I saw Guillermo Klein's Los Guachos for the first time on Thursday night. I'd heard a lot about G.K.'s music, from the people who saw (and sometimes played in) his band during his legendary mid-1990's run at Small's, as well as from people who know him only through his recordings, and absolutely everyone was overflowing with praise for the Argentinian composer-bandleader. So it's safe to say that expectations had been raised.
The music I heard on Thursday night at the Vanguard (second set) was often hushed and intimate, lyrical melodies harmonized with dense clustery voicings, and played with a soft, round ensemble sound, slightly fuzzy around the edges. Many of the charts began with the composer's understated piano, and a few of the tunes featured Klein's deadpan signing voice. The music often develops around skittish rhythmic cells plugged into complex multimetric grooves, loosely adapted from Argentinean and other South American rhythms. The mood was overwhelmingly somber, even sinister. One tune sounded like a polytonal version of a Radiohead dirge, and it was followed up by a spiky bit of Bartókia whose sudden ending brought me up short.
Klein's music is melodic and affecting, but fiercely difficult to play -- there's a showstopping ensemble passage in a tune called (I think) "Muela" that begins in Steve Reich-land but quickly introduces all kinds of mind-bending implied metric modulations over the already complex composite groove. And the set ended (appropriately) with "La Ultima," a Bach-inspired contrapuntal workout for the trumpets which requires Urcola and Haskins to construct a snaky composite line between the two of them, each playing a sixteenth-note off from the other. The crowd was so fired up by this chart that they demanded an encore (and I don't think I've ever seen an encore at the Vanguard before), and Guillermo obliged with a folksy, triadic ballad in 7 that opened with the entire band singing.
However, as impressive and original as the music was, I have to admit that I felt the set was emotionally a bit lacking. Part of this probably had to do with where I was sitting -- at the very back of the room, which, among other things, made it very hard to hear Richard Nante's percussion playing. But it also felt like the band was holding back, concentrating so hard on accuracy that they never really got off the page. (Obviously, as a composer of challenging music myself, I sympathize.) The situation in Guillermo's band is even harder because they perform without a conductor, which sometimes forced Jeff Ballard to lay things down more squarely and explicitly than he usually does. The soloists, too, were not quite as uninhibited as I'd have liked (with the notable exception of Bill McHenry, who ripped it up right from the start).
However, thanks to Ethan I., I was able to return to the Vanguard last night. This time, we were sitting along the right-hand wall, right next to where Ben Monder had set up. Being closer to the band made a world of difference -- many details in the music that had been completely lost at the back of the room were now clear -- especially Ben's intricate, often quirky guitar parts. Voicings that had sounded muddy and indistinct suddenly came into sharp focus. In the intervening nights, the players had become much more comfortable with the music, and Jeff Ballard was driving the band more forcefully and creatively than he had two nights prior, especially on the surging "Flores" and his own tune, "Child's Play." Bill McHenry's playing was undiminished, but this time there was more space for Miguel Zenón, Chris Cheek, Diego Urcola, and Ben Monder, and they all stepped up. Even the leader's singing was more self-assured and impassioned. On Thursday, I was respectfully impressed with Guillermo's writing -- last night, I was swept away.
That said, some (minor) reservations remain. I'm not always convinced by the shape of Guillermo's charts -- for example, immediately following the aforementioned jaw-dropping time-shifting section of "Muela," we get... a bass solo. Absolutely no disrespect intended to the great Fernando Huergo, but this is just not the right moment for him to blow. Guillermo has built up an incredible head of steam here, and I desperately wanted him to use it as a jumping-off point into something even more intense, like a horn soloist battling it out with the full ensemble. When the passage returns later in the piece, again I was hoping that this would be the start of something -- instead, the chart winds down shortly thereafter. Also, I found myself wanting to hear more dialogue between soloist and band -- I think one of the reasons Bill McHenry plays so well in this band is that his solos tend to be backed up by exciting, effective backgrounds, forcing him to play out just to be heard.
But these are only quibbles. Guillermo is clearly a major compositional voice, and I'm very glad to have finally heard him. Tonight is the end of their run at the Vanguard, so if you haven't been down this week, don't miss your last chance to check out Los Guachos.